EU leaders have agreed to begin accession talks with Serbia by early 2014. The announcement came during their two-day summit in Brussels, which focused strongly on curbing record youth unemployment across the EU.
On the second day of the summit, officials approved of Serbia's efforts toward member status.
EU President Herman Van Rompuy (right in photo) posted on Twitter that the summit had "decided to open accession negotiations with Serbia."
"Police stations have gone, blockades have gone, people are able to arrive at the customs gate without any problem at all," EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton (left) had said Thursday. "I believe this process is irreversible, but it still needs to be helped, and I hope that the (summit) will make a good and strong decision."
In an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt, Martin Schulz, the center-left president of the European Parliament, which has to approve EU enlargement decisions, warned against unrealistic expectations. Schulz told the newspaper that, "in the foreseeable future," he did not expect any new accessions other than Croatia, set to join on July 1, pointing to "enlargement fatigue" and institutional weaknesses.
The EU's 27 member states also agreed on Thursday to promote lending to struggling small businesses in crisis-hit Southern Europe, where youth unemployment has risen well above 50 percent in some countries.
European Council President Hermann Van Rompuy said that the 6 billion euros ($7.8 billion), which will directly target youth unemployment, could rise to 8 billion by scavenging other budget areas for spare money. Across the EU, some 5.6 million people under 25 are without jobs.
Some call the 6 billion euros pledged toward youth unemployment insufficient.
In the past week, Brussels also reached a 960 billion euro ($1.25 trillion) budget deal for 2014-2020 for everything from agriculture to development aid. The European Parliament still has to approve the member states' agreement. It will be the first time that the bloc's legislature has voted on a budget, after a treaty change in 2007 gave it more authority over fiscal policy.
mkg/rg (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)